Analyzing A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift
Note: the complete text of A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift can be found online at:
About A Modest Proposal
A Modest Proposal was written by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), who is well-known as
the author of the satirical political fantasy, Gulliver's Travels. Swift published the Modest
Proposal in 1729 as a pamphlet (a kind of essay in an unbound booklet). At this time, and
for many years afterward, Ireland (not an independent country) was far poorer than
England. Most people born there were Roman Catholics and employed as agricultural
laborers or tenant farmers. The landlords (landowners) were paid from the produce of the
land, at rates which the workers could rarely afford. Members of the ruling class were
usually Protestants. Many of them were not born in Ireland, nor did they live there
permanently. If the laborers lost their work, there would always be other poor people to
take it up. There was no social security system and starvation was as common as in the
Third World today. Swift knows, in writing the Proposal, that in living memory, Irish
people had been driven to cannibalism.
This assignment requires you to read and explain the Proposal, comment on Swift's
writing methods, and make a judgment and personal response to it. Respond to these
questions in writing (typed); number your responses—don’t write an essay.
1. Introduce the Proposal
First you should briefly introduce the Proposal: in a paragraph, outline what it is
about and when and why it appeared. You may use the information at the start of the
handout for this.
2. What problem does Swift seek to solve?
Next, you should outline the problem for which Swift proposes a solution: What is it?
Who (if anyone) causes it? Why is it so hard to solve?
3. The Proposal in detail
Now you need to explain the Proposal. You may use Swift's words sometimes, but
should also explain or summarize in your own words. Try not to make judgments
here (you will do so later). This will probably be the longest section of your response.
Look at the different parts of Swift's proposal.
4. Swift's ambiguity
Five paragraphs from the end of the pamphlet (this section begins, “I can think of no
one objection that will possibly be raised…”) Swift dismisses some alternative
solutions to the problem of poverty. He lists them, but does not explain them in detail.
See if you can work out what any of them are. Write in each case whether the solution
here would be better than the Modest Proposal. This part of the Proposal is
ambiguous - we cannot be sure of Swift's real intention. On the surface he is
dismissing alternatives to his scheme - but we can see that they may be quite good
ideas. Do you think that he really wants the reader to dismiss these ideas?
5. The reader's response
At this point it will be helpful to explain the reader's response (what Swift expects,
anyway) first to the Proposal and then to the other solutions which Swift dismisses.
You must write about Swift's use of irony: what he says literally (surface meaning) is
quite different from what he really believes (deep or underlying meaning) and the
reader is (you are) expected to see this.
6. Swift's real targets
Who, if anyone, is (or are) really to blame for the state of Ireland? See if you can find
those whom Swift casts as the villains of the piece. Give your reasons.